Eight Exercises to Jumpstart the Design Process

Charles James once said: “All creative work begins by doing something with the hands. Creation is simply a problem and design is the way out.” The act of creation is simultaneously infuriating and satisfying in the most addictive way possible. Regardless of how many years you’ve been doing it, designing something new never comes easy. And that’s exactly why we love it—for the challenge of wrestling an idea into being. But every now and then we could use a little help to jumpstart the creative process. To help you along, I’ve compiled a list of some of the things we do here at Slightly Alabama to help us work through a creative rut, challenge our designs, and look for new ways to explore our craft.

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Each exercise below revolves around some of the components of product design as we see it:

Focal Point

I recommend you attempt each of these first with a current design of yours, either one already in production or something you’re working on. Then work with a popular design from someone else. Assess, analyze and deconstruct it, discovering a better solution or coming to a clearer understanding of why the designer made the choices she did.

It could be fun to try a product from a category different from your own. If you’re a clothing designer, try analyzing watch design or shoe design. Finally, return to your own designs to see what you’ve figured out and how it could apply to future iterations of your work.


We’re all familiar with architect Louis Sullivan’s principle of “form following function,” but for this exercise we’re going to throw function out the window. The goal here is to open your mind and design as if function was an afterthought.

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Find a piece of art online, at a local gallery, or in a book and reinterpret the piece as a product design, drawing from the artists components to help define your design. Abstract art works really well for this. Ask yourself what it is that defines the artist’s work. Is there something interesting that stands out to you: a use of color, geometric shapes, juxtaposition, or particular lines. Take one of these elements and use it as a springboard for your work.


Smart Design, the agency that designs all of the products for OXO Good Grips kitchen products, has a simple design approach: If a child can easily use it as well as someone with arthritis, then it’s good enough for the masses. Find a product that you find particularly difficult to use and redesign it to be easily used by a child. Don’t worry about how it looks. The question is how does it function.


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Understanding the materials you work with is key to the product you’re designing. But how well do you really know how the characteristics of your material impact your overall product design? For this exercise, create a list of words that describe your material to someone who’s never heard of it before. Then describe how each characteristic of your material impacts the final product design.

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Finally, begin taking components away and describe how the final product would be altered but not destroyed without that characteristic. The goal is to understand what design choices you’re making based on a material’s inherent qualities.


Take an existing design and divide it along an x and y axis. Assess how the product is balanced. Then begin shifting elements around and take a step back.

How is the design changed for better or worse. What new ideas can you discover? Is it as simple as shifting a component slightly or removing it completely to improve the impact? How can you play with symmetry and asymmetry to enhance the design?


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Deconstruct a design into it’s separate geometric components. Then begin adjusting the size and spatial positioning of those components in relationship to the other design elements. How does this enhance or take away from the overall product? Can you describe specifically why something is or isn’t working?


What component of the craft of your product is most important? A line of stitching? The mechanical movement of a watch? The construction of a dovetail joint? Design a product that’s entire purpose is to showcase this feature of craftsmanship. How might you play with color, proportion and positioning to make sure that the average viewer is drawn to these details. Next, redesign the product to completely obscure this detail.

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Design a product that is meant to feature the interplay between two distinctly different elements. Maybe it’s two types of materials. Or geometric versus organic forms. Is there one of these elements that you want to emphasize more than the other? Does the juxtaposition create a pleasing dissonance or is it total chaos?


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Finally what is the primary point of interest in a design you’re working on. What if you shifted this or changed the focal point completely by emphasizing other elements through size, relationship and proportion? Working with an existing product from another designer, make a drastic change to the focal point and see how it impacts the design or inspires an idea for you.

My hope is that in the best case, you may be able to walk away with a new idea or two here that you can use for future designs. At the very least, these exercises should be able to help jumpstart the creative process if you’re ever in a design rut.

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